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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Myrrh and Mythology

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him........ 
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt 2: 1-3; 10-11)
In the days of King Hezekiah of Judah - one of the few kings in the Old Testament who's not constantly being evil, just a bit bad some of the time - some people came from Babylon. And Hezekiah, being a kindly and maybe quite proud old chap, took them for a tour of the Temple - a bit like the Queen showing the Chinese President around when he came over in October.

A hundred years afterwards, the Babylonians came back, removed the current king, killed half the royal family, looted the Temple and carried the Jews off with them into exile.

I wonder what Herod thought that day, when another bunch of people from that direction turned up?

Maybe that they wouldn't wait 100 years this time?

Especially when they were searching for a king who wasn't him. Herod is probably going to think this isn't going to go well.  They're banging on about a star they've seen, and Herod's probably wishing he had a star himself. One of these....

Herod would surely have noticed this kind of thing.
If you're a merciless tyrant, the last thing you want is competition. If people start being in doubt about who the real leader is, you're in trouble. Especially if there weren't just the three Wise Men. We're not told there were three. Suppose there weren't just three -  imagine there were forty or fifty, along with loyal retainers. Imagine they weren't on camels - which are as much a part of the "Imaginary Menagerie of the Nativity" as the donkey, ox, lowing cattle and Little Drummer Boy. Imagine they're on horses. Remember they're from a scary, Eastern Empire - one that even manages to treat the Romans as equals. And allegedly they can read the stars, and have magic powers. And they don't have the three little presents of a nativity play - they have treasure chests of tribute. Of course Herod ain't happy.

The backlash, as I mentioned last week, hits the totally innocent. As these things so often do. But the Wise Men don't know that. This group of pilgrims whom Herod thinks are a raiding party go on down to Bethlehem, in innocence, to present that tribute. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The tribute for a king and a priest.

And in doing that they fulfil a prophecy from Isaiah - that the Nations will come to worship, bringing their tribute. Herod's been focusing on parochial matters - a little grubby throne in a little tatty, rebellious state. But there's much bigger stuff going on.

From now on, God has no favourites. No nation can claim to be more God's chosen people than another - not the Jews, not Western Europe, not the good ol' USA - nobody. Because the heir to the Jewish promises has been shown to faithful Israel - Joseph, Mary, John the Baptist in the womb; the shepherds. And now he has greeted the Gentiles, in the shape of these star-gazing Persian mystics. Paul will develop this - no Jew, no Gentile, no male, no female, no slave, no free. All will be one in Christ.

In effect, Herod is right. There has been an invasion. God has invaded Earth.
Non-biblical animal and number of Magi uncertain
And I think that's the message Matthew is sending in this passage in his Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as the successor and superior to Moses. He's rescued from a slaughter of children. He sits on a mountain. He hands down laws. And the message is - one greater than Moses is here. Here is the truest Jew of all. And, fellow-Jews (because Matthew is nothing if not a good Jew) - let's recognise who he is. Everybody else will. The Gentiles have been to him already. They knew him, and they worshipped. The Jewish (or at least half-Jewish) king has tried to kill him. What about you? What do you think? He's our King as well, isn't he, Matthew says to his fellow-Jews.

Same offer, same deal for us. This Jesus is the king of the Jews, king of the Gentiles, king of Europe, king of the world. Our race don't matter. We can come from any faith, or none. We can come a short way or, like the Magi, the long way round. But he's still there, the King of the Universe. The stars, priests, angels and shepherds bow down to him. What about us? Do we leave him as the cute lad in the crib? Or do we see him as the promise of the ages - the icon of God - the king of all?


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